Tuesday, September 13, 2022
Priscilla A. Greear - Florida Catholic
PINECREST | In the immediate after-wrath of Hurricane Andrew, St. Louis Church forged ahead with a Red Cross relief site on campus and inaugurated a preschool with 16 pupils. That September event in 1992 built the foundation for a new ministry of education to enlighten the South Miami-Dade community.
Thirty years later, St. Louis Covenant School reached its largest enrollment, 525 students, in 2022. It goes full STREAM ahead in educating children in pre-K through 8 and fostering academic excellence, vibrant spirituality and extensive engagement with the community – true to that founding vision.
St. Louis will celebrate those three decades of growth and development at an anniversary Mass set for Saturday, Sept. 17, at 5:30 p.m. at the parish. Archbishop Thomas Wenski will preside, accompanied by past and present priests and community supporters. The Mass will incorporate the school theme “all for his glory,” and festivities will continue all year, from the Oct. 29 pig roast to the Nov. 5 gala.
Father Andrew Tomonto, parochial vicar at Little Flower Church in Coral Gables, was in St. Louis’ first eighth grade class, and first considered priesthood in seventh grade.
“Looking back, I’m not old enough for it to be 30 years already. It’s quite incredible,” he said. “It certainly is beautiful to see the hard work a lot of these people put in over the years and how the school has grown and has become what it is today. It was always a good school. For my years, they were trying to figure out how to be a good school. It’s inspiring to see that growth.”
St. Louis creates a tranquil spiritual oasis in affluent Pinecrest, at 7270 S.W. 120 Street, near Morningstar Renewal Center. Father (now Msgr.) James Fetscher became pastor in 1982, when the parish was thriving with 120 ministries. At the time, Epiphany School in South Miami and excellent public schools seemed to meet the area’s education needs. He said he didn’t want a school to become the hub of parish life but “a ministry of the parish, not its core.”
But he began to consider a preschool at the request of parishioners, who were sending their children to a Protestant one nearby. He invited its popular teacher, Christine Mathisen, to open one at St. Louis. She agreed, and it started attracting students from across the archdiocese. With visions of growth and expansion, it added a kindergarten in 1994 and soon after went before the newly incorporated Pinecrest, which in 1997 granted a building permit to construct an elementary school.
But Msgr. Fetscher didn’t rush it. “We didn’t begin the second track until we had a sense of what we were doing in the first track and so the second track began five years after the school began. We called it the Covenant School because in order for a parent to get their child into the school they needed to agree that they would be part of a very serious adult formation process.”
Principal Mathisen, who started out with an associate’s degree, earned a master’s in education and a doctorate in the interim.
“That was simply icing on the cake. She was already everything we needed,” recalled Msgr. Fetscher. “There were all kinds of challenges involved not the least being neighbors who complained about a building going up. Somehow, we managed to get through it all.”
In 1999, the church broke ground on the new building and by 2001, 137 students moved into its 22 classrooms. The current pastor, Father Paul Vuturo, arrived in 2010.
Msgr. Fetscher remembered chatting with a parish artist, the late Kevin Robson, and pulling out a holy card image of Jesus with children that he envisioned for the new building. Robson answered the call and created the iconographic mosaic on the east side of the school. “He came back a few days later with a wonderful sketch. And he said he thought he could do it in ceramic tile. He had never done anything that big but there was always the first for everything.”
For Father Tomonto, St. Louis was truly a family, with little brothers and two cousins enrolled and an aunt as his fifth-grade teacher. Around that time, he recalls moving with great excitement into the new building.
Then on 9/11, the Twin Towers fell. “We were nice and protected. We had teachers come and talk to us about after and the harsh reality. They did what they could to help us to understand.”
In 2013, current principal Edward Garcia arrived, after previously serving as principal at Immaculate Conception School in Hialeah.
The robust community engagement continues through events such as the dazzling literary luncheon where women dress up as characters of selected books.
“The attribute of faith, togetherness and fellowship is a huge component of the personality of the people of the covenant school,” said Garcia.
He recalled when a child suffered an aneurysm and the community immediately planned prayer and meal support. “They knew they needed to provide for each other. So when I say community and faith, it’s at our core.”
Academically rigorous, all 2021 graduates were admitted to their first-choice high school. St. Louis also is increasingly focusing on collaborating with other schools, such as by sharing insights on the Literacy First program by Catapult that gives “tremendous assistance” to identify needed interventions.
Among other programs, the special education teacher works with children with exceptionalities from dyslexia to autism. And about 80 children this school year receive state scholarships. Faith in Action focuses on activities such as cooking casseroles monthly for Camillus House, mentoring and tutoring. The Festival for the Poor benefits local charities.
“We don’t stand alone and we’re dependent on each other to meet our God’s mission for us,” Garcia said.
Another member of the initial graduating class, Lisa Donna, now teachers fifth grade religion and math. Former classmates will even walk in her wedding this month.
“It’s my home,” said Donna. “I knew enough of what it is about to instill that in my students — the mission, the covenant feel of partnering with the parents and the students to bring these children into society and to be children of God.”
She fondly remembers class adoration, Mass with church members, “the small-knit classes, the partnership between the parents and the church. It felt more like a family lifestyle with all the events we had,” she said.
Her faith sustained her through transitions to high school and University of Miami, she added. “My teachers at St. Louis actually inspired me to be a teacher” and help lead youth ministry during college.
Msgr. Fetscher, now pastor of St. Sebastian in Fort Lauderdale, said he is most proud of that spiritual foundation. “That’s why the school still thrives today. That spirit was established right from the beginning,” he said.